We’ve known fear as the bad guy. But could the villian be doing it all for our greater good? Sounds too good to be true, but still worth a consideration. In the interview below, Jaimal Yogis talks about how he deals with his darkest fears, and why he gives fear some much-deserved credibility — this and more in what we call the Upside of Fear. Enjoy!
Ishita: A year of delving directly into your fears – a scary quest. How did you come to the idea of writing The Fear Project?
Jaimal Yogis: I always had an interest in fear – it started when I was a kid and I was pretty shy one. I remember feeling fear vividly when I switched schools – at that time I had this raw sensation of not wanting to approach new people. Since my dad was in the Air Force, I changed schools quite a bit. Wandering the playground alone, I’d see a couple guys that I wanted to play with, but then decide not to approach them by making excuses in my head, “Oh, I love being alone” or “I just want to play with this piece of grass over here in the corner.”
At some point, someone would invite me to come and play with them. I’d open up, I’d have great friends and then I’d go away. Repeating this process developed a safety mechanism where aloofness and shyness helped. I drew people in by acting like that mysterious kid in the class. That is all good for school when you’re trying to impress the best girl, but if you want to make it as a journalist, The New York Times is not going to call you with that attitude! As I began freelance writing and building my career, I realized I had to start a new personal paradigm.
I also got more and more interested in meditation and psychology – methods people use to deal with fear. But things didn’t change drastically until I had an awful breakup when I was 29. It was a relationship of five years and I went into a downward spiral during the separation phase. Finally, one day, I kept listening to this Bob Dylan song “The darkest hour before the dawn”. The lyrics were stuck in my head and I said to myself, “I got to do something!”
I really wanted to dig deep and look my fears in the eye. And I wanted to try a new lens this time because the old ones were not helping in the right way. My parents are both basically hippies. My dad was in the military. Both mum and dad had always been into meditation and yoga. So I had that background growing up. I learnt from my parents that when something isn’t working, you’ve got to try something new. For some people, it is Catholicism and faith in God. For others, it may be spirituality. But you have to break out from your shell for a while and see things from a new perspective.
The new lens for me was science. And I started to see how valuable it could be my fears. I interviewed neuroscientists and psychologists; read several books on the topic just to find any new information that wasn’t already familiar to me. I didn’t want to throw out what I already had – I just wanted to confirm what I was doing was indeed working because I had lost faith in my tools.
Ishita: How did you know it was time to bring in new tools, or science in your case? Where do you draw a line between that maybe your old tools weren’t working and the understanding that you might need new ones?
Jaimal: The line comes when you start questioning your faith in yourself. You feel, “Oh, I remember how it was when I could trust myself.” As you decide to rebuild and start over, you find little tidbits of confirmation, which in my case were from the neuroscientists for example. Someone’s voice resonates with you and affirms some of that faith you used to have. Gradually, you start recovering that faith and realize you had it all this while inside you.
The spiritual traditions I’ve grown with tell the same thing – it’s a process of dusting yourself off and constantly reminding yourself of who you are. Delving into psychology reminded me these things in my life are good – that exercise is good. Have some time to yourself and listen to music, or meditate. This will actually restructure your brain and physiology which is a necessary part of thriving as a healthy human being. In simple words, it’s overcoming fear. No matter how much you talk or read, at the end it’s about feeling the fear and taking action.
I interviewed one neuroscientist at NYU whose words have remained with me. “Moving lessens fear”. Since the day I heard those words, I used movement as a weapon against fear. I’d go for a run, get out of the house, swim or exercise. I’d ask myself, “What is that one thing that I am going to do to move through fear today?”
Ishita: So many things that I have learned about how to deal with fear have been counterintuitive. Have you felt the same way about things that you’ve learned about dealing with fear?
Jaimal: They have been counterintuitive. Science taught me to not trust my gut so much. That was counterintuitive because I grew up relying on my gut feeling. But think about it: If you’re a shy person and shyness is a safe place for you, wouldn’t your gut feeling always tell you to go there? Shyness or not approaching new people will always feel better, intuitively, because you’ll think, “Oh, well, I should just retreat because it doesn’t feel good approaching this person.”
Ishita: But sometimes, even retreating doesn’t feel good either.
Jaimal: Yes, you’re right. But, at the time, it will feel safe. You’ll say, “I’m okay. I’m in a familiar zone.” All that fear is really saying is, “You’re in an unfamiliar zone here, the unknown.” To move forward into that often it feels icky at first. It feels like this is not the right path. But to push through that and to get to the other side feels great and then you start feeling empowered. You will feel weird to approach someone to ask if they’re willing to fund your film. What if they say no? That would be awkward for sure. It’s important to realize that’s your gut feeling talking. And that’s bad gut feeling. There’s good gut too and differentiating between them is really our task as modern humans. We must learn to know when it’s a good intuition to lean on and when it’s not. To identify the good gut is tough. I think it’s understanding yourself intimately, your patterns closely.
Ishita: That’s a fine line of where it’s best to be cautious and careful versus taking the bold steps.
Jaimal: One of the places fear is definitely lying to you is when it’s tells you to not pursue your goals or a person because everyone else is going to think badly of you. Or it’s going to end up awkwardly. Those social fears are so over-emphasized for us because evolutionarily, we are a part of the tribe. And to be ostracized by the tribe is like a death sentence. So the approval of people around us is still so important. It’s imperative for survival. But in the 21st century, this is not true. If people think you’re crazy doing what you love, who cares? If you’re following your dreams and feeling good about it, don’t bother about others so much. Seeing you having a good time, people are going to change their minds eventually. “I think what he’s doing is cool!” That’s how it works.
Our social fears manifest because we let them. If you walk up to someone and are afraid of asking them out, well guess what? They will sense your fear. And fear is unattractive. But if you walk up to them confidently, they will sense your fearlessness as well.
Ishita: We totally magnify social fears. They get big and dramatic and the whole world is looking at you, when in reality that’s not the case. Socially, we have control over things. But you swim with sharks and battle nature, where we have little control. How do you relinquish control while you’re in such situations?
Jaimal: I think there is a really valuable lesson to be learned about relinquishing your control and finding yourself in physical situations that push you. That is a place where we can really find a deeper courage because it taps into this primal, survival instinct, where a lot of our power is. But, the catch is that you really want to do it cautiously. When I was putting myself into surfing these giant waves off the coast of Half Moon Bay, I really wanted to do that because I had trained for fifteen years, surfing every day and doing all the things that I needed to do to feel safe. So I didn’t just do it. I did it in baby steps. That’s an important point. With each of those baby steps, you are taking action. So, if you have a fear of water, you can tackle it by one day going into the baby pool or getting into the hot tub.
If you’re afraid of the waves, have someone way more experienced come with you. In that case, you’re still going to feel the fear, but you will not panic.
One of the missions that I’m on with this book and in my life is to re-associate fear and see that fear is actually trying to help me. When you can see it as compassionate, it actually becomes less painful in your body and mind. You’ll realize, “This is my biology actually trying to help me to survive…sometimes it’s a blunt tool and it tries to trick me or it doesn’t fit well with this particular situation. But it is trying to help and I am going to take its message and apply it where it does work.”
Fear has a bad label and it makes us feel worse even just talking too much about it. And so to be able to re-associate fear and say, “This is actually part of my deep survival mechanism that’s trying to help. It’s trying to give me compassion in some situations.” Of course, in some other situations, it’s actually unhelpful, where it’s making you believe that you’re not good enough or that you don’t belong; those are the times where you can say, “Oh this is not useful. I’m going to drop it.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that fear is evil.
Jaimal Yogis is an author, journalist and outdoorsman. His second book, The Fear Project, is a personal and journalistic investigation into our most primal emotion – fear. To report the story, Jaimal not only interviewed top neuroscientists but also swam with the white sharks, swam to Alcatraz and back, and even surfed the deadly break known as Mavericks. Learn more about him here and The Fear Project here.
Image by Pink Sherbet Photography on Flickr.